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Seattle's complicated addiction to smartphones, explained

If so many people are frustrated with how much they use their phones, why can’t they cut back?

Everywhere you look, Seattleites are on their phones. What's at the root of our compulsive use? (Press Association via AP Images)

Smartphones have given people more access to knowledge and to each other than at any other time in history. But unchecked, many of us in the Northwest are discovering it comes with a cost.

“I work in downtown Seattle and, obviously, everybody you pass on the street is looking at their device,” says Kent Worthington. He’s worked in social media and video creation for the better part of a decade, and first realized he had a “compulsive” relationship with his smartphone a few years ago. He jumped on Twitter and Instagram “constantly,” and he says his news consumption felt out of control.

“It became personally somewhat debilitating,” he says. “I would be out at dinner with friends and I was sneaking out to the bathroom to check my phone. I really started self-reflecting on it, thinking, ‘This is out of balance for you. This is not normal.’”

Robert Watson, a Seattle-based software engineer, has also been frustrated with his smartphone use, but he’s exploring ways to reduce his usage and reading books such as Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

“I’m [trying to] spend more time in solitude,” he says. “I want to pay more attention to the world and stop letting my phone take over those sporadic five-to-10 minute [breaks] when I’m waiting for the bus or eating lunch. … I want to control my social media content instead of algorithms telling me what I want to read.”

There’s a lot we don’t know about how smartphone usage affects our lives and brains. Research has shown that when people see their phones — even when they’re off — their levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise.

“The natural result when you have a cortisol increase is to want to check your phone, and that's part of what contributes to the compulsive addictive cycle of checking your phone,” says Dr. David Greenfield, the founder and medical director of the Center for Internet and Tech Addiction, and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “Dopaminergic innervation is amplified and highlighted when you get intermittent rewards," a notification strategy that keeps users guessing on when they'll get a new like, email, or other piece of information. 

In English, playing the smartphone slots gets you hooked.

The flipside of that excitement is fear of missing out (FOMO): If users aren’t on their phone at just the right time, they might miss out on a reward. Even people who are successful in putting their phones down face software notifications and other kinds of FOMO that might lure them back in.

Watson is aware of how manufactured that urgency may be. “Whether I find out about something within hours versus days doesn't usually matter — if something's really important, someone will call or text me.”

Worse, staying plugged in is reinforced by humans’ social nature. The fact that most other people are still on their phones can make efforts to “detox” feel futile.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering recently interviewed 39 people about their phone use to identify triggers that cause people to pick up and put down phones. In addition to confirming known triggers, like boredom and social anxiety, they also explored relapse. One person who successfully detoxed managed to fill the hole with outdoor and social activities, but found reintegrating into social groups difficult: “I felt kind of like – I’d just sit there and people would go on their phones. And then I’m just sitting there trying to talk to people. But it didn’t work.”

Despite people’s frustration and growing awareness of how apps are built to hook us, time on screen is still ballooning. In 2013, Americans spent an average of two hours and six minutes daily on mobile apps; by the end of 2016, that number hit five hours. One survey of 2,000 Americans in 2017 found that people reach for their phones on average 80 times a day, with nearly a third experiencing anxiety when separated from their phones.

Still, researchers are only just beginning to study smartphone use as distinct from other technological occupations, which means classifying, identifying, mitigating, or treating overuse are still murky endeavors.

Is it addiction?

It’s unclear whether smartphone addiction exists — and if it does, whether compulsive smartphone use is indicative of that addiction or simply the result of strategic social engineering on the part of software developers. Some researchers say smartphones might simply be vehicles for a specific group of addictive behaviors — an umbrella within the larger umbrella of internet addiction. In the U.S. psychological community, though, even internet addiction is still not a classified disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

“The term ‘addiction’ has essentially been co-opted by the public and the media to refer to … a relinquishment of our ability to withstand the lure of the technology and how easy it is to lose ourselves and our time with its use,” says Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Tech Addiction.

Greenfield says the line between compulsive habits and addictive ones is their outcome.

“You need some negative consequences,” he says. “It’s not the amount of hours or the amount of times you check your phone.” If it interferes with your work, schoolwork, legal status, functioning, sleep, or a combination of those things, he says, “I’d say it has the potential to be crossing the line toward an addiction.”

And because these habits evolve subconsciously, it can be hard to reverse them, he says. “[Addiction is] precognitive. You can't outthink these things necessarily all the time.”

When smartphone users sense they’ve crossed into addiction, some turn to people like Dr. Hilarie Cash of reSTART Life, the country’s first internet and gaming treatment center.

Tucked away at a ranch in Fall City, WA, Cash says its staff has helped between 350 and 400 people take control of screen-based addictions since 2009. Their first clientele were “early adopters of smartphone tech, because it was a powerful computer they could carry around with them with internet access all the time,” says Cash, reSTART’s chief clinical officer.

Cash conceptualizes smartphone addiction on a scale that ranges from mild to severe, and she believes many people are mildly addicted. “If it’s interfering just a little bit, there may not be a problem, and so it’s a matter of gradation,” she says.

Most people seek human connection and acceptance, and experience degrees of anxiety or depression. Cash says a smartphone is a natural conduit for relief or escapism from those emotions, and when that need for connection is mitigated by diminishing social abilities and more screen time, these habits can interfere with people’s lives.

“The brain wires itself according to what we use it for,” Cash says. “We see people who are so socially anxious, because they've been spending so much time with their screens and interacting only online, that they don't have good [social] skills or even if they have good skills or were on the path of good skills, they've lost their confidence in them.”

Addiction aside, the fact that people feel frustrated by compulsive phone use and have trouble stopping compounds efforts to curb it.

“They do blame themselves,” she says. “Even if they're aware persuasive design is manipulating them, they still feel guilty for losing control and for it taking over their lives.”

Watson, the software engineer, uses a built-in phone app to keep tabs on his screen time and how often he unlocks his phone. “On a seven-day average, it’s usually two to three hours and 30 to 50 unlocks, possibly higher,” he says. That’s well below the U.S. average, but for him, it’s still too much.

Waiting for a change in design

Within the past year, large software companies like Facebook and Apple have begun to acknowledge the addictiveness of their smartphone products, and diminishing value people find in them. The user experience (UX) design community also has been more vocal about its ethical responsibilities.

The UW team that produced research on phone triggers presented their paper at the annual CHI design conference this month in Glasgow as a call to action, and guide, for designers and developers.

“Designers need to be creating experiences that are easy for people to engage with on their own terms,” lead author Dr. Alexis Hiniker says of the findings. “The experiences users found valuable were the ones that affected their life in ways that persisted outside of the specific moment of phone use.” These are things that reinforce enduring, real-world relationships and activities, like planning an event, calling a friend, or practicing a language.

But getting more companies to design responsibly would require a massive shift in product monetization.

“You’re talking about changing a profit model that's based on the amount of time [users spend on screens] to some other modality of measurement — that’s a sea change,” says Greenfield. “[But] the technology companies are starting to be wary of this and starting to do it themselves. That's why Apple put features on their last iOS, and Google did the same. They all will continue to do it, because the jig is up.”

Instagram’s recent “you’re all caught up” feature buffers the addictiveness of the app itself by alerting users when they’ve seen all new feed content. Apple’s Screen Time tools, launched in September, let users track screen time by app and lock themselves out of apps after specified amounts of time (though they still put the onus of time management on users).

For software designers beholden to both their employers and users, addressing the issue will require something of a balancing act. “As designers, we are often pulled in two opposing directions,” says Dr. Raluca Budiu, the director of research for user experience consulting group Nielsen Norman Group. “Users’ needs may trump the business needs. If we don’t cater to our users’ true needs, our business may lose in the long run.”

Budiu say designers and companies would do well to think of long-term “usership” goals instead of short-term engagement.

“Long sessions can ultimately result in unsatisfied users who resent the company for keeping them glued to their screens, and so they can damage the long-term relationship between the user and the organization, the brand loyalty, and the company’s reputation,” she says.

In a survey of 200,000 iPhone users, the Center for Humane Technology found people who spend more time on popular phone apps generally feel more frustrated with them. The center was founded by Tristan Harris, an ex-Google ethicist known for his early ‘whistleblowing’ on unethical software features.

Whether companies will do this more broadly without regulatory intervention, experts say, is debatable, but it’s reasonable to expect that they “provide adequate education and funding to support people that do become addicted,” Greenfield says.”

Cash thinks some form of regulation, along with broader education, could be necessary to confront the problem — especially with regard to minors.

“Right now, what drives the companies is materialistic gain — that is their driver,” she says. “As other professions have ethical codes, they need to have ethical codes.”

Smart self-help

Ahead of an industrywide reckoning, users are their own best defense.

“Until [companies] step up and design these things differently … we have to try to save ourselves. And it's always easier, even if you're mildly addicted, to do it with support,” says Cash. “That support might just be talking to your friends and, saying, ‘We’re all struggling with this, let’s try to all go away for the weekend. Let’s leave our smartphones behind: We'll be together, we'll go through withdrawal together, and, then when we come back, let's talk about how we're going to reengage with our phones.’”

It’s easier to remove the source of compulsion than ask yourself to set and follow appropriate boundaries, she says. Someone mildly addicted will likely recover within a few days by going cold turkey, Cash says.

“They’ll go through a period of withdrawal — maybe just a couple days — where they feel very anxious if they are without their smartphone, and then they’ll be feeling better,” she says.

Watson adopted rules meant to push him toward his perfect balance of phone use.

He buries social media app icons deep in his home screen where he’s more likely to forget about them, and he leaves his phone at home on group runs or while grabbing lunch. He uses Facebook only on his laptop, and he curates Twitter and Facebook lists that chronologically sort posts from select people.

Worthington developed a personal aid to break the habit. When he gets the urge to use his phone and reaches into his pocket, he’s instead is met with QuietFrame, a hollow iPhone-shaped block of wood he developed himself. Feeling it snaps him out of an unconscious habit.

When Worthington does have his phone, he attempts to limit screen time through willpower and self-awareness, without lockout mechanisms or by reducing notifications.

“I want my relationship with my phone to be me making decisions. I don't want the phone making decisions for me,” he says. “I say, ‘Why am I picking this up? Am I picking it up as a utility? Or am I picking it up to distract myself from something? Am I going to go online and start down an internet rabbit hole where I'm going to come out two hours later and go, where was I just now?’ That’s been really helpful. It's just a mindfulness exercise.”

Meanwhile, he’s noticed he’s connecting with strangers.

“When the phone isn't present, there's more space for people to enter into your sphere and connect with you,” he says. "I'm noticing more of those moments when you cross paths with somebody and you don’t have your device, and you're just face to face with somebody talking and you can just strike up a conversation and find some commonality. That is really really amazing.”

Worthington’s QuietFrame is for sale — he’s sold about 50 of them since launching last year — but mostly, he’s handing them out to strangers as gifts.

“For me,” he says, “it’s more about self-preservation.”

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Seattle's complicated addiction to smartphones, explained

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